Jan 2, 2009 4:39pm
R.I.P. Donald E. Westlake (non-GD)
sorry, non-GD and all, but i thought i should point out that one of the better mystery/crime writers recently punched his ticket; if you are familiar with his writing, then you can no doubt suss my thoughts, however, if you are not familiar with Westlake's writings, perhaps a trip to the local library is in order? personally, i only have read his 'Dortmunder' stories, because, i find the comic situations which Dortmunder and his pals find themselves in, quite appealing
Westlake was a graduate of the old school method of writing, still using manual typewriters, still churning out reams and reams of books (not that this makes him a better writer of course); reading one of his stories really highlights how so much of what passes for writing today, is profoundly mediocre
i'm probably breaking all sorts of copyright laws here, but here is the opening salvo from probably my favourite 'Dortmuner' story, "Bank Shot":
Donald E. Westlake
"Yes," Dortmunder said. "You can reserve all this, for yourself and your family, for simply a ten-dollar deposit."
"My," said the lady. She was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, small and compact, and from the looks of this living room she kept a tight ship. The room was cool and comfortable and neat, packaged with no individuality but a great passion for cleanliness, like a new mobile home. The draperies flanking the picture window were so straight, each fold so perfectly rounded and smooth, that they didn't look like cloth at all but a clever plaster forgery. The picture they framed showed a neat treeless lawn that drained away from the house, the neat curving blacktop suburban street in spring sunshine, and a ranch-style house across the way identical in every exterior detail to this one. I bet their drapes aren't this neat, Dortmunder thought.
"Yes," he said, and gestured at the promo leaflets now scattered all over the coffee table and the nearby floor. "You get the encyclopedia and the bookcase and the Junior Wonder Science Library and its bookcase, and the globe, and the five-year free use of research facilities at our gigantic modern research facility at Butte, Montana, and--"
"We wouldn't have to go to Butte, Montana, would we?" She was one of those neat, snug women who can still look pretty with their brows furrowed. Her true role in life would be to operate a USO canteen, but here she was in this white-collar ghetto in the middle of Long Island.
"No, no," Dortmunder said with an honest smile. Most of the housewives he met in the course of business left him cold, but every once in a while he ran across one like this who hadn't been lobotomized by life in the suburbs, and the contact always made him cheerful. She's sprightly, he thought, and smiled some more at the rare chance to use a word like that, even in interior monologue.
Then he turned the smile on the customer and said, "You write to them in Butte, Montana. You tell them you want to know about, uh ..."
"Anguilla," she suggested.
"Sure," Dortmunder said, as though he knew just what she meant. "Anything you want. And they send you the whole story."
"My," she said and looked again at all the promo papers spread around her neat living room.
"And don't forget the five annual roundups," Dortmunder told her, "to keep your encyclopedia right up to date for the next five years."
"My," she said.
"And you can reserve the whole thing," Dortmunder said, "for a simple ten-dollar deposit." There had been a time when he had been using the phrase "measly ten-dollar deposit," but gradually he'd noticed that the prospects who eventually turned the deal down almost always gave a visible wince at the word "measly," so he'd switched to "simple" and the results had been a lot better. Keep it simple, he decided, and you can't go wrong.
"Well, that's certainly something," the woman said. "Do you mind waiting while I get my purse?"
"Not at all," Dortmunder said.
She left the room, and Dortmunder sat back on the sofa and smiled lazily at the world outside the picture window. A man had to stay alive somehow while waiting for a big score to develop, and there was nothing better for that than an encyclopedia con. In the spring and fall, that is; winter was too cold for house-to-house work and summer was too hot. But given the right time of year, the old encyclopedia scam was unbeatable. It kept you in the fresh air and in nice neighborhoods, it gave you a chance to stretch your legs in comfortable living rooms and chat with mostly pleasant suburban ladies, and it bought the groceries.
Figure ten or fifteen minutes per prospect, though the losers usually didn't take that long. If only one out of five bit, that was ten bucks an hour. On a six-hour day and a five-day week, that was three hundred a week, which was more than enough for a man of simple tastes to live on, even in New York.
And the ten-dollar bite was just the perfect size. Anything smaller than that, the effort wouldn't be worth the return. And if you went up above ten dollars, you got into the area where the housewives either wanted to talk it over with their husbands first or wanted to write you checks; and Dortmunder wasn't about to go cash a check made out to an encyclopedia company. The few checks he got at the ten-dollar level he simply threw away at the end of the day's business.
It was now nearly four in the afternoon. He figured he'd make this the last customer of the day, go find the nearest Long Island Railroad station, and head on back into the city. May would be home from Bohack's by the time he got there.
Should he start packing the promo material back in his attaché case? No, there wasn't any hurry. Besides, it was psychologically good to keep the pretty pictures out where the customer could see what she was buying until she'd actually handed over the ten spot.
Except that what she was really buying with her ten dollars was a receipt. Which he might as well get out, come to think of it. He opened the snaps on the attaché case beside him on the sofa and lifted the lid.
To the left of the sofa was an end table holding a lamp and a cream-colored European-style telephone, not normal Bell issue. Now, as Dortmunder reached into his attaché case for his receipt pad, this telephone said, very softly, "dit-dit-ditdit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit."
Dortmunder glanced at it. His left hand was holding the lid of the case up, his right hand was inside holding the receipt pad, but he didn't move. Somebody must be dialing an extension somewhere else in the house. Dortmunder frowned at the phone and it said, "dit." A smaller number that time, probably a 1. Then "dit," said the phone again, which would be another 1. Dortmunder waited, not moving, but the phone didn't say anything else.
Just a three-digit number? A high digit first, and then two low ones. What kind of phone number was...
911. The police emergency number.
(no, i didn't type this all out ... i have the book in digital format)
This post was modified by Arbuthnot on 2009-01-03 00:39:07